Monday, September 29

Gender Horrors

I'm acclimatising to a new life schedule so my posts will be either brief, sporadic or both.

If you ever thought that western developed games lacked gender bias then maybe you should read this article. It explores the feminista's response to the game Cunt. I just want to add my voice to those voices already condemning this travesty of wisdom and sense.

Friday, September 26

What I discovered on my way to tearing a new one for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

A copy of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (sW:TFu) fell into my lap at the beginning of the week and with this sudden and unexpected opportunity I felt I could try my hand at offering a "current" review of this game. Its visit would be limited so I resolved to focus all my attentions on it to the scorn of all else (including this blog if you hadn't noticed). I finished the "normal" difficulty setting on day one and pondered whether to endure the game again, on a harder difficulty to get the alternative ending that taunted me with its "locked" status. I wrestled with my completionist impulses and while I did so I went and read a few blogs.

Versus CluClu Land is a blog I've mentioned a few times. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interesting in thoughtful discourse about gaming and the world, there's a link to it in the links section. While visiting in this impromptu interlude I was greeted by Pliskin's evil, evil words as he explored the meaning and relevance of game reviews. For a time his honeyed words messed with my substandard issue brain and had me convinced that it would be worthwhile to follow his sage advice. You've probably already guessed that I was going to play through sW:TFu for that last piece of story - the gaming press had promised it was good! - and I had a blog post that was delayed due to my inexplicable fortune so there would be a delay in getting the review out.

Then, before I try his ideas out for myself, he goes and posts a review himself. Somehow this turgid piece of steaming advertising copy (aka turd) only served to undermine those ideas that had formed in my head prompted by his musings earlier. Let me declare my undying hatred for this person I do not know, largely born of synonyms for envy. Why? Apparently there's a thin line in there somewhere. Fortunately he doesn't read this blog, and if he were to read it, I'm a complete nobody who's opinion is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. So I need not fear hurting his feelings. I questioned my own slavish devotion to his twisted mental manipulations and began to realise something about what I want from a review. Probably the point, but no matter.

Criticism can mean many things. It can be the analysis of something with the intent to provide feedback to the creator of that thing so that they may improve. Rather than the whiney complaining or listless fawning that is the staple these days. Critics criticise. The content of their criticisms lie within their "review". Those critics I respect most explore their feelings, established knowledge, the ideas the creator wished to express and the response of the viewer in light of all these things. It's personal, opinionated and typically includes a discussion about what was lacking and how it could be done better. No point in telling someone what they're doing wrong without telling them what they need to do to fix it.

Except that many games lack a permanent infrastructure to make such an exercise meaningful. Developers hire staff to make that one big game to end them all and then reward them by firing them once it's "gold". While this is also true of movies, it is also true that movies have a cultural industry that involves criticism with meaningful feedback that is directed at the specific individuals involved in the generation of a product. Directors, cinematographers, actors, writers, editors, sound and lighting staff, even the lowly stuntspersons and gaffers (among others) will get a look in from time to time. The relationship that exists between the critic and the developer (without even considering their relative anonymity) is largely meaningless in games. Critics in the gaming world serve only to promote someone's product, some publisher's product. And don't get me started on quality assurance. What is it with all these online patches for supposedly complete games anyway? Test the damn thing before you release it, fix it and then try to sell it to me.

sW:TFu glitched on me in less than 5 mins. The game froze at the 4 min 32 second mark as Vader was dicing some wookies. I was able to "complete" the holocron subquest(s) simply by changing my outfit once I picked one up. I discovered this quite by accident. The story was lacklustre, weak, insipid garbage with puerile scripting and voice acting that can only be described as "what the fuck"? The people responsible for the in game camera should be shot. Sith Lord difficulty was a joke (Sith Master unlocks once it's completed but I chose not to endure any further punishment), I died twice during the entire playthrough because of my desire to experiment rather than through any actions of the AI or the difficulty of the game. Even the graphics are weird, a cartoony representation of the far, far away galaxy that completely undermines the supposedly sombre atmosphere of doom and gloom the story tries to portray. I suppose I should also mention screen tears, clipping, piss poor controls, the overhyped waste of Euphoria (much more effectively implemented in GTA IV), how there are only two force powers of any worth - telekinesis in four variations, push, throw, repel and sabre throw or electrokinesis in the form of lightning or electrical shield - nothing unleashed here. DMM was nice though (mostly).

Yet there are some who have lowered their standards and expectations so much that they will ignore all the problems of the game, all its shortcomings and play it anyway. I really wonder what is going on at times. Advertising copy billed as a "review", minimal direct or indirect feedback on the quality of titles. Titles released as buggy messes with no respect for the craft, the art or the consumer because they can patch it later presumably. A press that is a simpering sycophant so desperate for an exclusive they won't check sources, will fire those who write risky reviews, or rely on a publisher's press agent for the scoop that would have once come from investigative journalism.

I'll still hate Iriquois Pliskin for all the wrong reasons and Star Wars: the Force Unleashed for all the right ones. What I want from my critical analysis of shit, is critical analysis. And if it's shit, I want someone to call them on it. Don't you?

Edit: You may notice that I've accidentally written the word "interesting" instead of "interested" in paragraph two, sentence two. I'm not going to change it because I suspect it's a Freudian slip of sorts. I apologise for any inconvenience this lack of compulsive grammar tyranny may cause.

Thursday, September 25

Dipping into deMMOs

Free to play MMOs (Massive multiplayer games) were recently a topic of discussion at the Austin Developers Conference. There's a fairly interesting round-table discussion on the nature of the MMO, its business model and its evolution moving forward from that conference. One sentence from that point form summary resonated very strongly with me. "But the only thing you can’t buy is social merit." This is a specific reference to the subscription based MMO, yet I wonder whether it is applicable to all forms of online interaction. Xbox Live, for instance, has had its fair share of social problems leading to a poor perception of its "social merit", whatever that really is.

I've spent a little time with both subscription and free-to-play MMOs and in many ways they're very similar experiences and in many ways entirely different. Their relationship with their player is very different. In a subscription based game players prove their worth to their peers by committing time to the grind and to the "scripted game moments". In a free-to-play game the commitment is more varied and very, very rarely related to time commitment. At its most insidious the free-to-play game is about wealth and the social merit derived from having more stuff than the guy or girl next to you.

The very notion of free-to-play is misleading. The free part is a glorified demo that is designed to lead the user toward the pot of gold at the end of the pixelated rainbow. You don't get the full game as a player, but you are exposed to those who have more of the game than you do (practically anyone who is still there after a week, presumably) and the desire to keep up with them is compelling. I appreciate the notion that I can test the gameplay through a demo but I dislike the idea that I can dip my toes into the wading pool without actually getting to swim around in the waters defined by the game. The pursuit of loot is both an ancient, well known practice and an addictive one that links to our limbic need to feel worthwhile. And while that scares me, it's not why I'm here.

I'm very comfortable with my ability to say no, regardless of how pushy someone may be, or how desperately needy. It's not so much that I wish to be cruel, it's a fundamental belief of mine that I have a responsibility to the universe to make sure that I put my own house in order, before attempting to help, interfere or be the victim of another's. Thus I feel no particular need to extend my demo like (without the full game experience) explorations into the worlds of free-to-play MMOs. My personal adventures are probably not representative, yet I wish to include them as an exploration of the social merit of such games.

My first free-to-play experience was a little awkward, ultimately driving me away from the game. Wandering around relating to the world, poking at things mechanically and thematically I began to meet people and make friends. It was not too long before I had a decent sized roster of opportunities for interaction. At some point I met a lovely, if needy, lesbian couple with a deaf daughter who required supervision because that person over there was a child molester who was hunting their daughter for reasons I'd prefer to know nothing about. The text based interaction environment was ideal for the deaf girl apparently. We chatted. I lamented their plight. The youngster was dumped under my supervision after our third meeting and the couple went off to play while the nominated molester followed my ward and I around with religious zeal. I really wish that I could say this was a form of role-play that was part of the game. It soon became apparent that these new friends of mine had cast me into a role that I would rather not have as part of my participation in this virtual world. I rejected the world and ceased attending.

Refusing to accept that this freak occurrence was representative I endeavoured to initiate a new experience in the same vein. I found that I had soon become embroiled in a serial online dater who sought a sympathetic ear and a new lover. She stalked me beyond the game and sought access to my real life. While flattering, it was more than a little harrowing as I felt that I had done nothing to encourage the belief in her that I was interested in her in that way. I left the game to escape her and soon discovered that this wasn't enough.

These highly personal experiences are echoed through retelling of friends who share their own stories of weirdness and general horror. Social merit indeed. I bear no ill will to those individuals who are mentioned above and in the former case do not know if it was some extremely elaborate joke designed to drive players from a competing product. What concerns me about this sort of thing is that many of these free-to-play models are a form of institution that will encourage players to become something. Precisely what is dependent on how the environment handles itself. If the environment is designed to make a profit for its distributor then its motives may be less than ideal and the social impact of such devices could be very deep indeed. Games influence players at least as much as the players shape the community.

Any tales from the world of MMOs you'd care to share with me?

Sunday, September 21

Dipping into demos

I haven't quite gotten my wish in regards to Braid. I don't mind at all. Life is good with or without Braid or any other critically acclaimed gaming experience such as Castle Crashers.

One of my friends, amazing that I have any really, let me fiddle with the demos of both Braid and Castle Crashers. Thanks. I would prefer to never write about demos as they might be constructed on early builds and offer a limited insight into the actual game. It is unfair and unreasonable to offer impressions of a game from a demo. I enjoyed the Braid demo but found the text elements to be indulgently pretentious. The Castle Crashers demo was vile, I hated it. Please be aware that in no way am I advocating anything about either of these games (positive or negative) from this experience.

Professionally published games aren't the cheapest form of entertainment. iTunes offers free podcasts of many varied professional standards. Music is a little more expensive. Then there are DVDs and shareware style games, some free to play MMOs might be similarly expensive if one is frugal. Blu-Rays, DVDs of TV series seasons, new release Blu-Rays, larger downloadable games represent the next largest price bracket. The most expensive of this kind of media is the major game release. Price is a consideration in the arena of entertainment and games are good value for money when one considers time versus dollars. There's a risk though, the consumer wants to know that the long time will be worthwhile, will be "enjoyable", and most importantly will be worth the investment monetarily. There are definitely times when I'd rather buy two seasons of TV on DVD (or Blu-Ray) for my one video game. Unlike the game I've probably had a chance to preview the series and am buying it because I enjoyed what I've seen and want to fill in the gaps that were generated by my real life commitments. I may also wish to return to whatever place is represented there if it is particularly compelling.

Demos represent this "preview" in the gaming world. It is imperfect. The demos are often created on preview builds, early levels, out of context moments, artificial additions that may taint the pure experience intended by the developer. Demos are a huge risk for the developer and publisher because they put the product out there for gamers to try, to see for themselves and to judge. I've noticed that many companies are turning to a wide array of user participates marketing techniques as a replacement for a demo. Many AAA releases deny access to the great unwashed masses until they fork over the cash, relying on the millions of marketing dollars and rabid fanpersons to generate interest. Such strategies make me wonder if such practices are better or worse. My belief is that they are better in the short term if the product is sub-standard but far worse in the long term as consumers learn that they cannot trust material from that source. Demos are honest, there is very little to hide behind, they give the power to the gamer.

Every once in a while publishers change the rules. Spore's Creature Creator is an excellent example of the delivery of a game demo that doubles as a viral marketing campaign. Penis monsters and fruit fuckers make good press, 3 million created creatures must mean this game is good. It also has follow on benefits for the developer / publisher as much of their game content is created by the users. N'gai Croal's discussion highlights how many artist hours it would take to create a similarly sized creature database, if you consider $20 per hour versus free the difference is significant in dollar terms, particularly when you consider that this structure also generates interest in the game.

The best game demo I've seen in a while is the demo for Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy. The reason I make this claim is because the creators of this demo showcased all three kinds of gameplay available (four if you count the quicktime events). The first is a tutorial in hand to hand fighting, each element is introduced in carefully measured doses eschewing the need for a manual and enabling the player to master hand to hand fighting quickly and easily. So too with the fighting and driving sections. The demo even does a passable job of concealing the poor level design and largely uninspired game design choices made in the final product. I bought the game in the end, I wanted to reward the manufacturer of this product with my dollars, to thank them for taking the risks and putting effort into treating me as a valued customer. Oh the irony.

Thursday, September 18

Where's your locus of control?

Third post today, save this one for a day or two from the time you receive it as I have real world based concerns that will draw my attention away from the blog for a few days.

The subdivision of psychology known as motivational theory has this idea of a locus of control. Much like metacognition it's a scale with one axis representing internal locus of control and the other representing external. An internal locus of control is self directed. It is not reliant on external factors for activity. In gaming terms it represents the kind of player who does not need a reason to play, who plays their own way, on their own terms, using their own rules. Outside of gaming those who have a strong internal locus of control are likely psychopaths or entrepreneurs. An external locus of control is directed through external influences, other people and the environment. Gamers with a strong external locus aren't looking for the secret passages, the hidden treasures nor are they inventing new ways of playing the game. They're more likely to do what they're told and play through the game as presented to them in the tutorial. Outside of gaming those with a strong external locus make fine petty criminals, career victims and form the core of public service occupations.

How is this relevant to games? Well, in my rambling little mind I've tried a few times to write about emergent gameplay. A definition here, a reference there, a paragraph on games of that style, and a paragraph on styles of play that might be representative. It's all pretty dry, dull, boring stuff. So I'm gonna break it up into different pieces and deliver it slowly so it can be more easily digested and not lead to impacted faeces of the mental kind.

Sandbox games like GTA4 or Oblivion lend themselves well to those who have a strong internal locus. Externally focussed individuals will play through the main quest and maybe a side quest or two (depending on interest) before putting the game aside. An internally focussed individual will probably devise a plan and attempt to implement it. A friend of mine often asks what I do in games like Oblivion once the main quest is completed. She's externally focussed in this aspect.

Linear games represent the ideal game for those individuals who are motivated by environmental factors. Freed from having to devise any reason for participating in the pastime these players will dutifully do as they're told, the plot, the rewards and the mechanics all request a specific set of behaviours from their players there is no need or point in attempting to deviate from the norm. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a good representation of this kind of game.

Most of the time most people have a little of each with one or the other being dominant. In dealing with one's boss one is more likely to acquiesce to external influences (and probably resent it), while encouraging one's child to live out the dream life one never could is largely an internal focus. Like life, games can provide instances where either locus is valid. Most games, however, tend to limit themselves to an either/or stance. Either you're its bitch and you do as your told or you have free reign (once the mechanics are mastered and the rules learnt) to play and do whatever you like. I'm proposing that a game, if it wishes to broaden its audience should cater to both loci while keeping its core gameplay model intact.

A great example of this in action is in SoulCalibur 4. I set up a challenge for a friend and I to create characters in the character customisation mode that represented ordinary household items. We had to create five characters each. Seeing and fighting against his wonderfully realised "plunger" inspired my "toilet brush" creation. We're taking an element of game play and making it our own, as much as is possible within such a limited framework. Typically SoulCalibur 4 presents an external locus of control, but what makes it great for me is that I can influence it with my own goals, ideas and ideals.

Would you mind thinking about games where this is possible and recommending them? Perhaps you could relate experiences of your own, either where you took the game and made it more about you or where the game invited you to create your own goals but you were not inclined to take them. What were your reasons?

Digital download blues

There's a lot to like about digital downloads. Cheaper distribution models lead to the possibility of increased innovation or more bang for one's buck. The convenience of shopping from one's home without having to spend money, time or effort grooming before traveling to a public place filled with those annoying creatures known as people only to acquire the latest, greatest AAA gaming title. Digital downloads would reduce carbon emissions, greenhouse gases and consumption of electricity required to power the energy hungry displays found in gaming retailers. They may result in more timely delivery of product too, no cursing another country/region/state/suburb's store for breaking a release date, no waiting for a delivery man or woman to knock on the door at some ghastly hour with your game a day or two later than the "official" release date. Anything before midday is ghastly.

Digital downloads also have a couple of flaws.

Infrastructure

Without a physical presence there is no motivation for a provider of the necessary telecommunication services to accommodate digital downloads unless they receive a slice of the profit pie. Existing digital download providers, as far as I understand it and my understanding is very limited, operate independently of the telco providers that enable connection to their service. This is fine, reasonable, understandable, but it only really works as a delivery mechanism in densely populated, wealthy, single nation countries that are not heavily restricted by legacy infrastructures. Basically Canada (the southern bits) and the US. Oh and Estonia which kindly legislated a free wireless broadband internet service for every one of its 1.5 million inhabitants. Time to move methinks.

Europe may well have internet connections and digital downloads available to it and it has a very high population density. It also suffers from having many nations with different ideas about how to implement and regulate telecommunications. Not to mention having an overly bureaucratic model steeped in ancient traditions that is not highly adaptive to change unless there is recompense. The EU is something of a counterbalance to this very problem yet one need only look at the different regulatory behaviours toward games, different buying habits and product distribution to know that this is a complex market.

Poorer nations such as most of Africa, India and South America will only have services of worth available to the very rich who can afford them. Most of their populations will not be able to access their games via a digital download medium for a few years yet as we're talking significant economic reform and fairly massive economic investment.

Isolated, low density nations such as Australia are already falling behind the technological capacity of the rest of the world. The cost to profit ratio of providing state of the art services isn't justifiable, with only the wealthy being able to access the premium services.

Physical shops get around by existing in the real world, by being tangible. They drive entire industries through encouraging shoppers to congregrate and spend their earnings. Gathering together in shopping centres shops compete with one another for the consumer dollar, kroner, pound, yen or yuan. Existing behaviour patterns tell us that people like to have a wide array of shops in centralised locations because their funds are limited and they must decide whether to eat or to buy the latest console title, whether to keep clean or cover their car seats with pure wool. Removing the possibility of buying games from physical stores without providing the infrastructure required for the most likely buyer (the working classes) may result in a large loss of market share.

I have an acquaintance with a dial-up modem and a PS3. They lament not being able to buy Blood Siren in a physical format. They're in credit stress at the moment, cannot justify the increase in service (and can barely justify their dial-up) and still spend more than they can afford each pay period. With the current economic climate surely this scenario is going to become more likely than less? Is it all a Sony and friends conspiracy to ensure that Blu-Ray remains relevant for the entire life cycle of the PS3? If consoles are on their way out as a means for delivery gaming, then will Telco's become the new console market as they enhance services to deliver the product to a larger market, seeking to recoup losses on standard services introduced by VoIP and introduce new internet fee structures for distributors of digital downloads.

Ownership

It is said that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Interestingly enough this is pretty accurate. Software, however, is a little wonky when it comes to possession. Most software is a license that permits the user access to the software for a fee. If it comes in a disk based format the owner, "owns" the disks and may do what they like with them, but they don't entirely own what is on them. DRM and SecuROM take this concept further. You, the user, may have bought the disk that contains the game Spore, but there is only one user allowed per disk and should you upgrade your computer more than three times (according to the manual) you will need to renew your license. That is, buy the game again. General consumers aren't largely affected by these legalities because most software developers aren't too restrictive with their product and they don't upgrade their systems or crash their hard drives as much.

Digital downloads, however, are poised to change all of that. You see, without that disk the user only has a set of code on the hard-drive of their processing machine of choice. Strictly speaking that code doesn't represent a thing, it represents an idea with ownership of ideas differing slightly from ownership of objects. That said, I'm not a legal person of any kind so I may well be completely wrong! Yet, I believe that who owns what is still being explored by the law. Second Life has had its fair share of thefts with interesting implications try this post, or this post if you want to start exploring this quagmire of confusion, old news maybe, but more relevant to now with all the controversy surrounding Spore. Sure they can claim that you can re-download a game, but this only works if the distributor continues to offer it. You've bought it and you should be able to keep it, but if you have a hardware failure of some kind you're at the mercy of the distributer more than ever before.

Publishers don't like the trade-in or rental markets either and for good reason. Yet there are reasons these facets of the business should be allowed to continue. They stimulate interest. They allow a potential buyer to test a legitimate copy of a publisher's game without having to resort to bit torrents containing cracked pirated copies. They generate throughput and enable gamers to keep their favourite games while reducing the cost of newer games. I realise that this limits the total numbers of games sold as trade ins, they aren't counted as actual sales and they don't generate profit for publishers. However, as with the infrastructure problem above, the issue here is that distributors have no connection with publishers, the lucrative area of 2nd hand games is purely the domain of the retailer. Savvy publishers could perhaps find ways to enhance their overall profitability by connecting with this aspect of the business rather than trying to eliminate it. Some sort of buyback scheme with a cross-promotional tie in that links the business aspects of the physical distribution model might help curtail the highly variable income derived from a high risk product portfolio. Other options exist, of course, I won't bore you with a list of my ideas as my intent is to illustrate that generating interest in a market that is not yet saturated will increase overall sales.

Digital distribution offers a different set of opportunities, of course, but with existing profit areas already prime for milking why aren't more businesses looking for greater leverage?

Learning, gaming and me.

I am a poor student.

This is a peculiar statement because on the surface I present as a good student. I attend all classes. I read the required readings. I listen. I ask questions. I am even able to accurately respond to questions for a while. But then something happens, it's complicated, the whole illusion breaks apart and I start to struggle. There are a multitude of reasons for this and they aren't explicitly important in this context except to note that there are number of factors at play and as I wrestle to overcome one problem my efforts are hampered by others. The end result is always the same, in a traditional classroom environment I am a poor student.

James Portnow and Daniel Floyd are currently collaborating on a series of videos that explore learning and games. Their latest discusses tangential learning. While they could benefit from an editor - can't we all? - there's much of interest if one cares about alternative applications available from games. Games can be powerful vectors for education yet as is discussed in the referenced post, educational games are shit (my phrasing, not theirs).

As a dedicated gamer with strong completionist tendencies I have no problems learning the elements of the game, implementing them and then subverting them for my own ends. I have discovered that my "completion" rate is remarkably high when compared to my friends, both real and virtual. In this instance I refer to both types of completion, I complete the actual throughput of gameplay as intended by the developer and I complete the additional material such as found in achievements. My point isn't to elevate myself as a superior gamer as I believe that this behaviour isn't qualitative. It is relevant because if games were a classroom then I'd very nearly be a model student.

Yet I am not.

If I ignore the fun aspects of play for a moment - which are certainly significant motivators but dealt with here, here and here as well many times over throughout the interwebs - what else motivates me to play? Gaming lets me compare the fictional reality of the game world against the real world that I inhabit. Gaming lets me make mistakes that may result in virtual death but are not harmful to me. Gaming lets me just do it, should I not be in a reflective mood I can just poke around and explore. With games I can propose theories and test them. Games are practical models for action with direct rewards that are dependent on the fulfillment of the most "desirable" action. They have a degree of reality that, for me at least, transcends the classroom. Games enable me, they elevate me, they even sometimes send me off on some tangent as I struggle to keep up with my "normal" peers in some classroom that teaches the Sephiroth.

I've met a lot of people like me. People who do not learn well in the classroom environment, who find practical activity more productive. Games don't really embrace this capacity well and educational games are frequently little more than interactive electronic lesson plans. While it may not be art, should developers decide to incorporate a design principle that incorporates educational goals they will definitely elevate the medium.

Tuesday, September 16

RPG or TWG, you decide.

For a really long time the notion of video games labeled as RPGs (Role Playing Games) has irked me. A role playing game is a game wherein the player plays a role and this notion applies to every fucking game ever created. In Tetris I play the "block manipulator" or builder or whatever name you may care to give to the role of the player's avatar that's spinning and shoving blocks. In Crash Bandicoot I'm an anthropomorphised bandicoot with a penchant for spinning and creatively wacky death animations. In Call of Duty 4 I'm a soldier and a man, twice! My avatar as a player is someone else's idea of whatever it is that I'm doing in their idea of whatever it is that's being done. I'm playing a role, their role, a specific role that I have no say in how it develops, changes or responds to its environment. No meaningful role. I am a functional unit designed to fulfill a limited range of functions that unlock new cutscenes or high scores. The subcategory of games that are actually called role playing games are in fact TWGs (tactical war games).

TWGs (formerly known as RPGs) are games where the player has the ability to fiddle with the underlying mechanics of the game in some fashion. These games provide a series of functional tasks, typically physical in nature, that require certain mechanical qualities to overcome. The "role" is represented by a form of niche protection or exclusion of function. The thief's "role" is to pick locks and stab people in the back. The fighter smashes stuff and is smashed. The priest role heals people. The wizard role zaps stuff and crumples. These established "roles" are functional tasks lists that have nothing to do with playing a character and everything to do with fulfilling a function. Typically the problems that these roles are required to overcome are presented in a tactical combat focussed manner, reminiscent of the miniatures source from which these sorts of games were originally inspired. MMOs (massive multiplayer online [games]) are TWGs where individuals play each individual character in a given unit (such as infantry unit or cavalry unit). Like other TWGs there is no mechanical support for emotional connections, for the notions of evil or good, of noble or unjust, of happiness or sadness. Well beyond simplistic scripts that provide a set of emoticons. Does Poe's law apply here or is it only for fundamentalist religious rants?

TWGs have grown stale. Mechanically they fail to explore their own nature repeating over and over and over the same mechanics. Their stories are clichéd derivative drivel. Even the roles they have defined as templates have passed beyond familiarity and become predictable functional tools. Many people like the idea of RPGs, every single one of the people that have commented on this blog, for instance, and I believe they fall into three groups.

Tactical wargamers are those who like, you guessed it, the mechanical side of the game, the minutae, the collecting of loot, the sorting of loot, the division of labour and the optimisation of statistics to reap maximum benefits. The best description of this sort of game is the "turn based strategy game" such as the Disgaea franchise or the Civilisation style of strategy game, light on story, heavy with mechanics. Though most current "RPGs" fit this play style as well.

Narrative viewers aren't really interested in "playing" the wargame elements beyond meeting the requirements necessary to reach the next story function. These players are single handedly responsible for "the grind" as all they need is time to acquire the necessary power to progress through the next functional task. Inefficient builds are fine with "the grind", poor tactics are overcome with "the grind", anyone who is given enough time can make it through to the next narrative moment. Any RPG with an "epic story" fits this category, but many non RPG games also fall here, such as the Metal Gear Solid series.

Role-players want to play character roles not functional roles. They aren't as interested in the healer as they are in playing the priest who firmly believes that his or her deity is the one true deity and seeks to convert those of not of their faith. They don't want the fighter so much as the gladiator who seeks someone who can see his or her inner softness and look beyond the scars, fall in love, marry and raise children. The wizard isn't as interested in zapping things as gaining the admiration and respect of his or her academic peers. The thief may well steal because they cannot reconcile their fundamental inability to agree with the dictatorship that rules them and the general populace with an iron fist. I cannot name a single game that provides gameplay of this type.

It is my belief that the reason TWGs are stale is because developers aren't really considering their audience and catering for their tastes. Development costs could be reduced significantly if developers were to focus on targeting a specific demographic and developing with that type of player in mind. Too much time is spent on story when a few goofy jokes will do. Disgaea 3 is a TWG for the PS3 that doesn't bother with fancy graphics or deep, original storylines and for its target demographic it delivers. Farenheit / Indigo Prophecy and its offspring Heavy Rain represent the Narrative Viewing game, gameplay is much more a function of the story rather than of skill. There's a scene in Farenheit, for example, where the avatar is being interviewed about his possible role in a crime while being harrassed by invisible alien fleas, if the player chooses not to respond to the avatar's paranoid delusions then the interview goes smoothly, but if the player plays the mechanical aspects skillfully their erratic behaviour is considered suspicious and has consequences. Playing the game skillfully is detrimental to the avatar in this instance, discouraging skilled play and encouraging a more thoughtful exploration of the mechanics.

Games that allow the player to adopt an avatar that is a character role doesn't really exist. I believe that there is a market for this kind of game and would welcome and reward any developer that chose to undertake this challenge.

I'm a character role player, but I like the story and tactical aspects of RPGs. Many of my friends are easier to define into little boxes. What kind of RPG gamer are you? What kind of RPG game would you play? How would it be built, dialogue heavy tracts of narrative, minutae laden lists of inventory, skills sets and kewl powerz or maybe character traits like, honest, generous, miserly or headstrong?

Monday, September 15

What's in a name?

I chose the name nobody for a reason. Firstly, it's not really a name but more an adjective. I am a nobody, nobody relevant to the grand scheme of things. That doesn't mean I am insignificant, just not "important" as much as such concepts can be defined. Somebody therefore is likely to be a well known figure with some, maybe much, influence. They are "named" (rather than described) and they often have plot relevance or perhaps many nobodies that congregate around them. In a JRPG (Japanese role-playing game - typically developed for a gaming console) I'm one of the filler avatars in town that might wander from one location to another and back. In most JRPG's I'd be lucky to have a name and get a line or two (written only, not spoken) of largely useless fluff. I suppose this sort of thing exists in all computerised RPGs.

Some cultures see this as a negative, my culture knows that many nobodies are needed to make somebody Somebody. Culturally we also take great delight in reminding a Somebody how tenuous that adjective can be.

A friend or two tell me that non-linear stories are really hard to code. I dispute this, but do so largely from a stance of complete ignorance. My intent is to offer a means to provide a non-linear story generation mechanic that is both simple to implement and simple to play. How does a nobody (the starting character) become a Somebody? In the real world it's usually when Somebody pays attention to them, mentors them, and/or assists them in reaching others. It could be just the same in the fictional worlds of games too. Take a largely irrelevant nobody farming their parents peasant farm in nowhere-ville and consider how they become a hero. Campbell's Hero's Journey is something of a cliché these days, surely the process can be more organic?

A player would make choices about their character's mechanical qualities based on preferences centred around that player's personal interests in the game. Those choices could then trigger a predefined Somebody or two or more throughout the game world that become interested in the character. Those virtual Somebodies would then respond in a pre-defined manner to that player's character's choices. The same Somebodies could respond differently, or different Somebodies could respond, or a combination of both. How much variation could be included in a game would be a function of time.

Corvus at Man Bytes Blog suggests that verbs could be a means to enhanced storytelling. And while I agree The Sims uses such techniques in its structure without defining character relationships (boyfriend, mother, rival, lover) and they do weird things that while briefly amusing typically result in dissatisfaction in many of the games detractors. In The Sims, a microwave is defined by its "cook" [food] attribute, so a Sim can use it to cook food making it edible and fulfilling the hunger directive. It's hardly compelling from a storytelling perspective. Still, mechanics that define the core features of storytelling could redefine narrative games as more than aping linear media into creation of a whole new understanding of narration.

Sometimes though, that old nobody sitting there by the fountain turns out to be the ancient kung fu master keeping it low key. Perhaps not this time, but sometimes.

Sunday, September 14

Gender Bites

Leigh Alexander at Sexy VideoGameLand is someone I admire. She's also someone who's much more likely to be informed about what it's like being a woman in the modern gaming world. So when she writes about how irrelevant gender is to her gaming experience I think, "fair enough" and "good for you". After all, a real life friend echoes those exact sentiments.

This morning my TV, in its role as my alarm clock, roused me to the news that Republican Candidate Sarah Palin has single handedly caused a 20% swing against Barack Obama by virtue of nothing more than her gender and her appeal to white women. That's the crux of what they said, pretty much as they said it too. Gender shapes nations, why wouldn't it shape games?

Tuesday, September 9

It's hurricane season!

Storms are funny things, they build momentum out at sea normally, brewing, percolating as they drift across the waves, typically they just water the garden and wash the car, but sometimes they lay waste to entire cities.

Michael Abbott's post on Spore triggered a thought process in my teeny tiny mind that reveals a growing trend of militant behaviour in gamers and developers. Maybe it was always part of the gaming scene and I haven't noticed until now. Mr Abbott's post is as genteel as always remarking on the divide between games reviews and actual play. On its own the post is largely unremarkable, but given discussions here and all over the internet many gamers and former games journalists (such as Dan "Shoe" Hsu at Sore Thumbs) are very disgruntled with the current systems in place. Games journalism is not particularly helpful and many are dissatisfied with its apparent pandering to publishers. I am one of those many.

Several posts of my own have expressed my desire to see developers and publishers push the envelope with their games. Too many are making bland decisions that fail to ignite a community that is becoming jaded and wary of the tricks of the trade. N'gai Croal, the videogame writer for Newsweek and all round cool dude wonders at what is fun and realises that the big blockbusters no longer hold that allure for him. His reasons are personal but his sentiments are echoed all throughout the interwebs. The first signs of the coming storm, perhaps?

Then a company called Stardock goes and releases a gamer's bill of rights. The cynic in me suggests that this is a clever marketing ploy designed to cash in on current moods among gamers. Core gamers feel that Nintendo have deserted them, regardless of the truth it's interesting to see the shift in perception toward Nintendo's extremely effective strategy. The other cynic in me sees it as an attempt to cash in on the hostilities that have erupted over DRM and the EA published game Spore. Shamus Young is one somebody who feels very strongly about DRM, from personal experience, to a reinterpretation of the gamer's bill of rights EA style. Whatever it was that Stardock was trying to achieve they've succeeded in generating a lot of hype and the cynic in me suspects that they are rubbing their hands with glee.

Spore - published by EA - uses this DRM stuff. The same stuff that is generating negativity. The same stuff that prompted Stardock to shoot for a little publicity regardless of their intentions. The same stuff that has some claim "problems" although as far as I can see it the problems were created by EA not really anticipating that an over-hyped game monstrosity like Spore would break street date somewhere and did not have the infrastructure ready for such an event. That sort of thing has never happened before! Like this time, or this time or even this time or the countless other times I haven't referenced. Makes me wonder whether EA personnel are näive, stupid or arrogant. I'm sure the reputation that EA has isn't warranted and I hope that one day they prove it.

The storm lingers by the shore undecided whether to rage or just rain. Many gamers, 1,210 of them in fact (as of my writing / researching this), have decided to "attack" EA directly via the only direct means at their disposal Amazon. Is it DRM, the dissonance from game press, gamers disillusionment with games or something else that's generating all this hostility? If it's enough to get a charming, easy-going, considerate guy like Michael Abbott on the defensive then something's brewing.

I believe that DRM could well be a Trojan horse of hurt for EA but have little grief with it on a personal level. Are you feeling dissatisfaction at the moment? Is that bubble of prosperity that the video games industry is currently experiencing about to burst? Or is it just a sign of the times in America where the sub-prime mortgage crisis has left the economy in shreds and everyone feeling a little glum?

EDIT: Last paragraph, third sentence, phrasing.

Monday, September 8

Braid - Impressions

There's this problem with Braid, you see. I really would like to relate my impressions about this game here, but I can't. You see, I don't actually own an Xbox 360 and am at the mercy of my philanthropic friends for their patronage. Unfortunately my subtle hint earlier in this post fell on deaf ears. They're comparatively wealthy too. I hope they get the hint this time!

Just in case I wasn't clear.

Dear [insert your name here],

Please buy Braid so that I may play it. I don't mind if you enjoy it too. Just think of all the children that read this site and will miss out on the chance to vicariously experience this game without your kindness. That somebody wannabe Iriquois Pliskin thinks you'll enjoy it, but then again he loves MGS2 so his analytic qualities are questionable and definitely not conventional! You should ignore that established somebody Michael Abott's whining about Braid's difficulty as he is clearly deficient and should you encounter similar problems you can rest easy in the knowledge that I will be there to assist you.

Gratefully yours,

nobody

Let's face it, the only people visiting this blog are my friends, so this is directed at YOU!

(j/k)

The Last Guy - Impressions

If you read these posts in chronological order then you should know that I was holding off on buying PixelJunk Eden until I had a chance to choose between it and The Last Guy. My limited funds were not limited enough and I succumbed to my delight with both demos. They're very different games, both available via PSN and both most probably overlooked by the AAA game, hype driven gaming sites out there.

Whereas PixelJunk Eden evokes feelings of wonder, of the fresh scent of a garden with new blooms, The Last Guy is instantly familiar.

It's a 2D collecting game similar to many early platformers without all the jumping. Your avatar is described as a Himalayan mutant that can lead "survivors" of the "purple light" cataclysm to safety. Anyone outside when the purple light bathed our planet was turned into a "zombie", basically a vastly more powerful monster with differing powers and behaviours that change the gameplay environment.

The gameplay environment is a secret delight. Aerial photography of many major international cities converted into a top down 2D platform with free roaming zombies and tiny ant like dot representations of survivors that follow The Last Guy as he (she?) leads them to safety, mostly. I love that they squeal, shake and the controller vibrates whenever a "zombie" lurks nearby - particularly when they can see something that my avatar cannot, sometimes even only half the line of followers panic as only they can see what threatens them. There are power-ups like invisibility, time-stop and a teleport to base called Return. You can run quickly, huddle and infravision innately but this consumes Endurance that replenishes over time or with the Endurance or Endurance+ power-ups.

This is the fast food of gaming. Easy to pick up and play, easy to put down. There is certainly something fulfilling about saving people (pixels) in one's home city and I take some perverse delight in choosing not to visit a building and save its inhabitants because a real life friend works there. I suppose this sensation is commonplace for Americans as many games are set in one or more of their cities. Yet, if we believe the hype surrounding GTA IV, it is neither old nor tired.

PixelJunk Eden - Impressions

GameSetWatch is one of those blogs that I really, strongly recommend if you want thoughtful commentary on the breadth and depth of video game culture, such as it is. A little while ago a former somebody by the name of Steve Meretzky laments the loss of creativity in gaming. It's a short piece that affirms my hope, my investment in this pastime.

PixelJunk Eden by Q Games is one of those titles that I have anticipated for quite a while. I didn't pick it up until after I had a chance to play The Last Guy demo so that I could decide which I would buy as my budget is limited. Not limited enough. It's weird, it's wacky and it's definitely original as far as my experience with gaming goes.

The controls are really, really simple. Point in the direction you want your critter (called a Grimp) to jump with the analogue stick and press any face button. One press has the Grimp leap while trailing a thread behind it, once the thread reaches its full length the Grimp can spin around its jump off point twice maybe three times before the thread breaks. Two presses has the Grimp leap forth without the thread. Holding the button down has the Grimp spin. Grimps that just freefall will cling to anything they encounter. Grimps that spin will pass through anything in their way.

The gameplay environment is pop-art inspired, abstract pastel splashes of colour for a background, populated with stylised plant silhouettes and free floating "enemies". Plants grow from seeds, seeds grow when filled with pollen and "activated" by the Grimp by clinging to them. Gameplay consists of collecting pollens, activating seeds, jumping higher and finding the maguffin known as Spectra. Collecting Spectra changes the colours of the game environment, more pronounced as more are collected. The game is 1960's psychedelia in game form. Even the soundtrack is a wacked out, trippy melange.

The game feels fresh to me. I'm nobody significant mind you, but as a dedicated gamer I have directly played at least 300 titles in my lifetime - including Pong in its original form. So few games present this sensation to me these days. It is very welcome when it reveals itself to me, reminding me of that childlike sense of wonder that I cherish. What is particularly delightful about this simple game is that while there are gamey elements it can just be played. In this sense I'm talking more about colouring in the seeds, making them grow and collecting the spectra to change the pastel palette of the viewing space. It's a form of moving meditation that for now, at least, transcends things like scores, skills and trophies.

Sunday, September 7

Shades of gray

I received some bad news on Wednesday, nothing serious mind you, just the kind of thing that's enough to spoil your mood and yet not enough to generate any decent amounts of sympathy. Then I rushed the convention style tabletop scenario that I was running on Saturday, the ideas and its implementation was clear in my head, just not so clear on paper. My friends, bless them for liking me, tolerated it. And just now I was watching an episode of Dexter on TV. You can tell then that I'm one of the great unwashed, as no Somebody ever watches anything on TV and even hardly any nobodies watch TV programs at their scheduled time slots anymore.

I enjoy watching Dexter. This isn't a review of that program, nor am I advocating that you watch it. I like it's light and dark moments. I like that each of the supporting cast has their moments, their good moments and their evil moments. Each character is wonderfully flawed, honest, and real, more real than many prime time efforts. I very much enjoy the compare and contrast moments between "normality" and Dexter's private world of blood samples and righteous murder. The normal characters are as fucked up as Dexter in their own ways and it's a pleasant little study on the nature of "normality". It's not without it's flaws though. The first person voice over narration is too helpful, too obvious and too simplistic for my tastes. Like any serial some episodes are well wrought, others are just filler. It's also far too conventional, retreating into safety to protect its audience share where it could offer meaningful insight into its titular character and the lives of his peers.

Isn't this a blog about gaming? Well a "Dexter" game is being worked for the iPhone by Mark Ecko Entertainment. So I could claim that's the reason it makes an appearance. It's not. Though I suspect that game will also be far too conventional. Dexter is relevant because as a game it ticks a few boxes that have come up in discussions of late. It could be used to experiment with cut scene structure in games. It would be an ideal vehicle for exploring the alienation of the player through some sort of Brechtian ideal. Not that there's anything wrong with Aristotle. I even vainly believe that a Dexter game structured with the intent of making the participant step back from the game and "think" would not break the expectations of the player, would support those expectations and if done well would offer some insight into what kind of mind is Dexter's. Unlike my personal experiences with MGS2.

Of course in a market economy where the creation of light entertainment such as video games is driven by the need to make money and please shareholders it is unreasonable of me to hope that the developer will take risks with this (or any other title). So what can we expect? My belief is that it will be a "western" take on the Phoenix Wright series with the occasional throw away line stating that Dexter "isn't like normal people". Mark Ecko and his team may well surprise me, they may take risks, they may seek to push the boundaries of gaming on that proven gaming medium of mature game delivery the iPhone. Then again, like nearly every single development team centred in the west they're unlikely to take any real risks. Instead of black, white and shades of gray all I foresee is beige.

Tuesday, September 2

Game Play

I'm guessing that I'm one of the few people in the world that likes this piece of jargon. It represents my central desires when engaging with games. These desires are beginning to change as others in the interwebs help me grasp a greater understanding of not only of who I am and what I believe but of what is possible.

I am an ignorant neophyte. I'm not seeking self-promotion or attention when I interact with others I seek information. I seek knowledge. I seek to compare myself understanding of the universe with others who I admire. I wish to engage in a dialogue about things that matter to me and to these others. I wish to remain a nobody (small 'n') because power corrupts, not that I know, of course.

Versus CluClu Land has educated me and I have responded honestly to Iriquois Pliskin's post on Brecht and MGS2, a post that I think lotusvine would also appreciate. He discusses player alienation and game play and I found it very interesting indeed. Play, that element of gameplay I value most has always been about a sense of exploration, joy and wonder. I test the game's rules, I explore my relationship with the game, I realise the vision of the developer and then I do what I can to make something out of it. The reasons for this are very personal and exist elsewhere on this blog (although there's more, much more that isn't here yet and may never make it here).

I turned away from MGS and from Silent Hill because my notion of play, of gameplay is naive, idealistic, even childish. The structured play proffered by these sorts of games and by games that have linear stories or little functional deviation offer little to extend my belief that games can enable me. I do enjoy many games of this ilk so I'm not completely narrow minded. The question that I ask myself is whether it is possible to forge a gameplay experience that puts the rules in the hands of the player and still be fun or more importantly meaningful.

Mornington Crescent was a game my English teacher adored when I was in High School. Wikipedia covers it's premise aptly enough and when in English class we had fun playing it. Trying to unravel its riddle. The riddle is that it is, in itself, make believe. There are no rules and the winner is the first to name Mornington Crescent on their turn. If one does not know this, then the rules are inscrutable, a humorous trick that teases the ignorant seeking of knowledge. Me. I don't know much of post modern philosophy and its role in games as art, yet. I'm hoping that Pliskin and others will help me, that they don't mind holding the figurative hand of an ignorant nobody. But I wonder if a video game can be designed around the notion of Mornington Crescent. Perhaps the player doesn't know, at first, that the answer to the game is simple, too simple. Perhaps the game leads that player on a merry chase of confusing and humorous phrases, rules, tricks and feints. Perhaps the game itself is so well crafted that it remains playable even after the player gets the "gimmick" because the game itself requires play to unravel all its variants, all its twists and all its wonders.

Wouldn't this then represent the objective vision of Brecht or Kojima without leaving me an embittered ignorant whose understanding of its greater sublime meaning is more "conventional"? I honestly don't believe developers have done anywhere near enough with game play yet, do you?

Games, Gender and Lara Croft - an update

Edge online has posted a piece on the nature of Lara Croft's gender today. It's largely a safe, measured piece that draws on sound bites of five female industry somebodies. There aren't really any conclusions drawn in this - unless you count the closing quote as the conclusion - I believe this article sits firmly on the fence. It also doesn't really touch upon the gender qualities of the game, or gameplay, just the character.

If this sort of thing interests you, you can find it here.

Monday, September 1

The Quest for the Holy Grail 5 - Writing

Facing the continuing prospect of ignorance I wonder at how many more feeble jokes I can make about it before having to recycle them. I will always be ignorant, that is a given, but I can choose to be less ignorant today than I was yesterday.

Recently I chose to embrace broadening my horizons. I examined blogger's functions and I used the world's favourite search engine to find me some articles on writing in video games. The former was easy enough and more poking, prodding and massaging is required. It's like a game! The latter? When I first conducted the search I was told in an indifferent manner that a mere 37,100,000 interwebs awaited my perusal. Ouch! Necrotic equines be damned, this is an entire species. My arm is going to get very tired. Of course much of the material presented isn't actually what I want, yet even if 1% of it is worthwhile, that's still a century worth of reading if I am able to process ten sites a day, every day, without fail until I complete this task. There's a problem though. Over the weekend the number of related interwebs increased another 2 million. Ignorance is starting to look mighty appealing.

The wonder I discovered as I began this new quest was how eloquent, how considered the ideas and their presentation of so many sites. I have not yet encountered the pubescent, homophobic, mammary obsessed, pasty faced, sociopathic freaks that populate the personalities of so many game characters. Writers in games (or the developers that drive the engine that requires the writing) appear to have no idea of who their audience is. I will happily admit that there are probably as many sites that share these characteristics, maybe half, maybe more. However, this proportion isn't reflected in games, the characters, their stories, the pitch, pace and pause of the narration is dominated by the aforementioned characteristics.

Games writers and the entire industry just don't deliver. The standard of writing in games is a huge pile of steaming turd. Bioshock makes a valiant attempt, more win than lose. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune realises the cinematic game ideal well, it requires that the player be skilled right in the middle of the bell curve of the developer's expectations however, leading me to realise that the game actually works to undermine the quality of the experience for the very weak or very strong player. The pacing of the story potentially spoiled by the player's faux participation in it.

This, you see, is my problem with the whole writing in games thing. If game developers seek to emulate cinema, television or books then they really should be making cinema, television or books. Games are games. I'm not really buying into the whole interactive cinema thing. This doesn't mean I won't buy and play such games, but I'm not buying them with any expectation of good storytelling. The transgendered psychotic mess that is Mass Effect was enjoyable enough for me, but not because of its story. Actually if I'm to be completely honest with you, its story is priceless, I laughed myself to tears at nearly every dramatic moment in the game. Unfortunately this was not the intended reaction. I liked the cool powerz. That's why I played the game.

There are two ways this can change.

The first is the Dennis Dyack approach where cut-scenes remain an integral part of interactive cinema, formerly known as games. This is familiar, a known quantity, all of my friends chastise me for refuting its interactivity. The change isn't so much in the delivery mechanism, it comes in what's delivered. Dyack states that "story is very important to video games". Yet his own efforts with Too Human lack quality. I would change his phrasing to "quality storytelling is very important to interactive cinema style games". No gamers I know seriously proffer any games as examples of quality storytelling.

The second option is more insidious. Make the story a gameplay element. This is my holy grail of course. Embrace the existence of the player and make the "story" dependent on their existence. I'm not really talking about a choose your own adventure style of play either. The Sims is vaguely warm, if given a much more robust and meaningful relationship mechanic that can be manipulated, foreshadowed, the pacing played with, edited, that has a certain musicality that incorporates linguistic play. In a criminal investigation style of game allow the player to create the perfect crime and have the NPCs solve it. The relationship between cut scene and player is inverted. Once the gameplay element is completed the game runs its cinematic moment revealing whether the player escapes or is caught.

Let the cut scene report the player's skill to the player rather than reminding them of their irrelevance to the story and its creation. It's a game, make it about play.